Keeping an Even Keel: A Solo Trip across the Ocean

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People will only ask “Why?” if they are judging you. It’s a “subtle accusation that one is doing something wrong.”

A Pearl in the Storm

So writes Tori Murden McClure in her memoir, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, released this month. The idea of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in a 23-foot rowboat – alone – may have been an absurd proposition to many, but McClure has “always found curiosity to be more compelling than fear.”

In 1998, after setting off from North Carolina, McClure hoped to follow the favorable currents of the Gulf Stream (a plan quickly spoiled) to reach the coast of France in fewer than 100 days. While the book’s cover boasts that McClure is “the first woman to row alone across an ocean,” the voyage is far from a fait accompli, keeping readers in suspense.

Encounters with a Tiger Shark, Portuguese Man-of-War “with tentacles extending more than 20 feet” and a 50 foot Sperm Whale, so close that she can smell its acrid breath, are mere curiosities compared to the loss of communication devices and severe weather threats. Back to back storms – hurricanes, McClure later learns – capsize her boat and batter her body.

The first woman to ski across Antarctica, 750 miles to the geographical South Pole, the author is no stranger to risk. She’s faced off with grizzly bears in Denali National Park, fallen into a crevasse on Mount Rainier and stood in the tracks of an avalanche in the Bolivian Andes, but in each case, her fate was decided in seconds. “On the ocean, fear is more robust; it lives longer,” she admits.

Rowing 12 hours a day for months on end was physically demanding, but she didn’t expect the extent to which “an ocean of solitude would tax more than muscle and joint.” McClure’s story is as much about her emotional journey as it is about conquering 3600 miles at sea. Interspersed with the grueling physical exertion are intimate recollections of her past: both the pain and love that accompany an ongoing desire to protect her mentally challenged brother Lamar.

Published 10 years after the events on the Atlantic, the memoir succeeds in large part thanks to McClure’s removed perspective. Just like the author herself, the story maintains an even keel while moving from gripping action to personal memories, always with a sense of humor: “I’m on the North Atlantic in a rowboat, racing a turtle… and losing.” One minute, she’s focused on rowing, fighting the winds and current to make forward progress; the next she’s lost in a memory; the next she’s buried by a 15-foot wave. Amidst it all, she holds on to her “gritty elegance.”

A Pearl in the Storm is a testament to the limits of rugged individualism and simple curiosity, revealing a true pioneer, whose passion for high-paced adventure is balanced by a gentle, grounded awareness of her own self and her place in the world.

Follow Tara on Twitter: @TaraDK

“I was not breaking new ground. A close reading of history will demonstrate that women have walked the hero path since the beginning of time, but we are supposed to walk it softly, and we are not supposed to walk it alone. When we do it, we do it for the benefit of others. If we climb mountains, we do it to raise awareness about breast cancer. If we hike the Appalachian Trail, it is to call attention to global warming. If we ride a bicycle across the country, we do it to feed hungry children in Africa….. Rowboats and oceans had nothing to do with such things.” – Tori McClure, A Pearl in the Storm

Last modified: February 24, 2012

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